Wednesday, November 11, 2009

These Cities Weren't Made for Walking

First some business from The Conscious Shopper...The winner of the No Impact Man giveaway is: Oldnovice! Please email your address to consciousshopperblog [at] gmail [dot] com, and I'll ship that right out to you!

Photo by Suzie T

My butt is mad at me tonight.

Earlier today, I had a meeting downtown, so I loaded up the stroller - three umbrellas, two kids, one backpack, and a partridge in a pear tree - and hauled all 100 pounds of it up and down North Carolina's hills to the bus stop a half a mile away. We took a quick trip on the bus to my husband's office, and then I deposited the load in my husband's safe hands before heading off to the meeting.

Two hours later, the stroller, boys, backpack, and I took the bus back uptown to kill some time at a museum until my oldest's school let out. Then it was back on the bus, half a mile walk to the school, find son, half a mile walk to the bus stop, bus ride, half a mile walk home. All the while pushing a stroller with two kids and a backpack up and down North Carolina's hills.

My butt is mad.

Most days I don't do quite that much walking, but three afternoons a week we do make that trip on foot/bus to my son's school. It takes me an hour and forty five minutes and involves two miles of pushing two kids on a stroller. I honestly don't mind the walk. I needed more exercise anyway (as my butt can attest). But I am struggling with the hour and forty five minutes.

Choosing to walk to pick my son up from school rather than drive our gas guzzler changes the great convenience of living less than two miles from my son's school into a complete inconvenience.

I often hear the excuse that going green is more expensive. It really doesn't have to be. But it can be much more time consuming.

I'm lucky to have the flexibility to be able to devote an extra hour of my day to a long walk, but most people don't have that luxury. If the choice is between a short commute in the car or a doubled commute by bus, how many people are going to choose the long commute?

But on the other hand, I sometimes think as I'm walking (while pretending to have a conversation with my babbling son), what if the bus stop were a quarter mile from our house and the school instead of a half a mile? What if the bus came every ten minutes instead of every twenty? Those small changes could easily cut the travelling time down to an hour. And an hour is very doable.

I believe individual personal changes are hugely important to the green movement. But the truth is that they can only take us so far. Here in America, our infrastructure has not been designed for a green lifestyle, so until we change the system, we're going to hit a wall.

If we want people to drive less, we need cities and suburbs that are walkable with affordable public transportation. If we want people to support local food systems, we need to make it as convenient to shop at a farmer's market as it is to shop at the corner grocery. If we want our children to spend more time unplugged outdoors, we have to provide accessible green spaces and playgrounds and create safe neighborhoods.

Personal changes matter, but they're not enough. We've got to change the system.

But in the meantime, I'll keep loading up the stroller for the long walk downtown. My butt can use the exercise.

7 comments:

ruiaf said...

Indeed. My solution was going to live in a smaller city where I can bike to work. It's one of the most important quality of living aspects, the time you take to get to work, entertainment, etc. It's possible to optimise it without changing town. What were you criteria in choosing a place to live?

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

I know exactly what you're talking about, and truely feel for you!

Most towns/cities were designed for cars. In this economy, they cannot put money into improving road design or expanding mass transit, and very few of us can look for a different job, or sell our houses to move closer to work.

I moved to a city thinking that it would be easy to leave my car in the driveway, but it's not so. The roads here are not made for bikes or walkers - very dangerous. And the bus that stops near my house would drop me 5 miles from work. I can't make any changes now, but I'll be looking at transportation/accessability in a future move.

Green Bean said...

One of the reasons we're still living on a much smaller lot - even though I yearn for more space for the garden/chickens - is because it is walking distance to downtown. And I do walk to downtown often but, as you point out, people have to be in a position to have the time to do it. I'd love to see better public transit. Even in our small town, we used to have a shuttle that took people down town and back to key neighborhood drops. Unfortunately, it was one of the first things to go due to budget cuts a few years back.

utahlawyer said...

While I was in college, I spent a summer living in Germany. Over there, cities are designed around walking, biking, and public transit. From the apartment I lived in, I could go anywhere in Europe using mass transit. Also, I had everything I needed within easy walking distance. There were two grocery stores, a bakery, a bank, and a florist within a block. Downtown (and main shopping district) area was about two miles away. I could easily get there on wide city sidewalks or on nature trails going through green space within the city. I could also access downtown by bus. The buses came about every ten minutes and were always on time. While I lived there, I wouldn't dream of driving anywhere (even if I had a car) because it was less convenient then walking or taking a bus.

The contrast between European cities and American ones is striking. Where I live here, the closest grocery store is about a mile and a half away. I don't walk there because the road between home and the store has no sidewalks, blind curves, and a 50 mph speed limit. Also there is no bus that comes within walking distance of my home. Unfortunately, walking or riding the bus are not realistic options for me because of the way my city is designed.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@ruiaf - We definitely chose our house because of the close proximity to work and school, but the school is just a little too far for little legs and unfortunately we are not on a school bus route. I think the walking will get easier as the kiddos get bigger.

@4 Bushel Farmgal - So true. The meeting I went to was actually an advocacy group for improved public transportation, and I spent the whole meeting feeling frustrated with the slow pace of government.

@Green Bean - and it's not just transportation. So many of the things I do in the name of living green are more time consuming, and until certain aspects of our culture changes, I sometimes wonder how most people would fit those changes into their lives.

@utahlawyer - Exactly! Europeans make it seem so easy, but their cities have been designed completely differently.

Rosa said...

You're making a heroic effort to change that, though.

We'll only get usable design by using it the way we want and letting city planners follow along behind with infill or transit or whatever.

I am endlessly frustrated with designs that city planners claim are good for bikers & pedestrians that just AREN'T. Tonight I was biking along a big main street about 2 miles from my house mentally damning the "traffic-slowing" bumpouts at corners - studies may show they slow traffic, but not enough to make a 4-lane street safe for pedestrians to cross easily, and they are awful for biking.

Karen Moser-Booth said...

You're right, Erin. Cities (and most American systems) happen haphazardly, beginning with cheap land and the developers' interests. Utilities--roads, sewer systems, schools--occur after development of homes. Of course they should be all planned out in advance, but they're not. Cities grow organically. I completely agree with you, but it is reassuring to note that when our preferences change collectively (to farmers markets, mass transit, etc.), that will influence developers to change accordingly. The question then becomes, how do you re-do the city planning that has already occurred? How do you take sustainable design and apply it not to new smart-growth developments, but to old cities and rural cities? It fascinates me.

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